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Smithfield Slang

January 23, 2014
by Jonathon Green

Jonathon Green, the foremost lexicographer of slang, introduces his predecessor Robert Copland who is believed to have recorded slang for the first time at the entrance to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield in the sixteenth century.

Jonathon Green in Smithfield

After thirty years as a lexicographer of slang, everything appears through the gaudy, gruesome, grubby prism of the vulgar tongue, the resolutely oppositional vocabulary I call the ‘counter-language.’ Even Smithfield, which has taken life from its hosting of dead flesh – both human and animal – for eight-hundred years and is now facing cultural extinction at the hands of ever-vampiric, philistine greed.

Occasionally, I like to walk there in the early hours, dodging the abattoir trucks and glorying in this longevity, but glorying above all that across the way, outside St Bartholemew’s Hospital, the first devotee of my craft assembled the first slang ‘dictionary’. It is not quite a dictionary, just a few words included in a lengthy narrative poem, and it is not exactly slang, as spoken by the mass, but simply the ‘cant,’ or criminal jargon of wandering beggars. Yet even slang lexicographers need a creation myth and this is it. That Barts was founded by Rahere, who may have played jester to Henry I, compounds the pleasure – for what else does slang do but let wit murmur doubt in the ears of complacent power?

The poem’s author was Robert Copland, a printer, bookseller and stationer, of whom we know frustratingly little beyond a professional life spanning the years 1508-47. He worked primarily as an assistant to the printer Wynkyn de Worde who, in turn, had been William Caxton’s principle assistant from 1476 until the master-printer’s death c.1491. Indeed Copland claimed to have worked for Caxton too. In the preface to his book Kynge Apollyon of Thyre (1510) he states that he gladly follows ‘the trace of my mayster Caxton, begyninge with small storyes and pamfletes, and so to other,’ but given their respective dates, this relationship is more likely figurative than factual.

By 1547, it would seem that Copland in his turn had taken on the role of London’s leading printer, although this position had fallen upon him through chronology – de Worde had died in 1535 – rather than any particularly outstanding talent. Andrew Borde, writing that year in Prognostications or The Pryncyples of Astronamye, mentions ‘old Robert Copland… the eldist printer of Ingland.’ Somewhat later, writing in his Bibliographica Poetica, the eccentric eighteenth-century antiquary Joseph Ritson described him as ‘the father of his profession’ but this was overly generous. Still, the Dictionary of National Biography credits his contribution to the evolution of printing and, in The xij Fruytes of the Holy Ghost (1535), he uses the comma stop for the first time in a black letter book. Prior to that, the virgule (a thin sloping or upright line occurring in medieval manuscripts either denoting the caesura or as a punctuation-mark) or dash was the norm. He worked at times with his brother William who may have been that same William Copland who as church-warden of St Mary Bow donated a new bell, the Bow-bell, which chimed fifth in the ring. It was heard every night at nine, cheering the London apprentices, who on hearing the Bow-bell knew their day’s work was over. And to be within the sound of that bell, as would become traditional, was to mark one a true Londoner, a Cockney.

Copland’s catalogue ranged widely, including the first English translation of the surgeon Galen (1542) and the scatological Jyl of Braintford’s Testament (c.1535),  an early repository of the fart joke. Sometime between 1529 and 1534, Copland created the work for which he remains known. The Hye Way to the Spytell-Hous, loosely translated as ‘The Road to the Charity Clinic’- a spytell house being a form of charity foundation, dealing specifically with the poor and indigent and especially with those suffering from a variety of foul diseases. It is a verse dialogue, supposedly conducted  between Copland and the Spytell House Porter. Bart’s is not specified, but it has always been the assumed backdrop and it would have been a short walk from the printer’s shop at the sign of the Rose Garland near the Fleet bridge.

Trapped in the hospital porch by a snow storm, Copland strikes up a conversation with the Porter, taking as their subject the crowd of beggars who besiege the Spytell House ‘Scabby and scurvy, pock-eaten flesh and rind / Lousy and scald [scabby], and peeléd [naked] like an apes / With scantly a rag for to cover their shapes, / Breechless, barefooted, all stinking with dirt.’ The pair discuss why some are allowed in and others rejected and, within this framework, Copland notes and the Porter describes the various categories of beggars and thieves, as well as the tricks and frauds that are their stock in trade.

The Hye Way falls into two halves, the first focussing on beggars, the second on fools. Whatever the source of the ‘criminological’ verses, the second half would appear to have been influenced by Robert de Balzac, one of the minor French writers whose work Copland would have known, and author of Le Chemin de l’Ospital (The Road to the Hospital) 1502. And while de Balzac’s catalogue of fools does not deal in crime, it undoubtedly gave the English author his title.

Copland provides vivid descriptions of a wide range of what would become known as ‘the canting crew’ – ‘diddering and doddering, leaning on their staves, / Saying “Good master, for your mother’s blessing, / Give us a halfpenny.”’ Some, explains the Porter, are justified in their beggary, others are not.

By day on stilts or Stooping on crutches
And so dissimule as false loitering slowches,
With bloody clouts all about their leg,
And placers [plasters] on their skin when they go beg.
Some counterfeit lepry, and other some
Put soap in their mouth to make it scum,
And fall down as Saint Cornelys’ evil [epilepsy].
These deceits they use worse than any devil;
And when they be in their own company,
They be as whole as either you or I.

The Porter also describes such ‘nightingales of Newgate’ (the great prison was but a stone’s-throw from Bart’s) as those who claim to have been imprisoned in France ‘and had been there seven years in durance,’ or falsely imprisoned in London only to face poverty on their release. And explains how, once enough money has been earned, all such villains repair to brothels and taverns, dressing up in far from ragged finery and making ‘gaudy cheer.’  There are false scholars, and quack doctors, and – inevitably – corrupt clergy, whom the Porter characterises as monks, driven from the dissolved monasteries and posing as Pardoners. And as his descriptions reach their end, the Porter offers a list.

For by letters they name them as they be
P a Pardoner; Clewner a C;
R a Roger; A an Aurium, and a Sapient.

The clewner, a senior villain, may be linked to the Gaelic cluainear, a cunning fellow, a hypocrite, Erse cluanaire, a seducer, a flatterer, or Manx cleaynagh, a tempter.  The Roger pretended to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge. pronounced with a hard ‘g’, the word is ostensibly a version of Southern-English rogue, but may be linked to Gaelic ruaigair, a pursuer, a hunter, and Lowland Scottish rugger, an outlaw. The aurium is a fake priest, possibly from Latin aurius, an ear (i.e. that which hears confession), and the sapient a travelling quack, from Latin sapiens, a wise man, a term also found, with the same meaning, in the Liber Vagatorum.

In all, Copland’s verses offer fifty-one examples of cant. Among them are apple squire, a pimp – bouse, alcohol and bousy drunken – callet, a whore – cove, a man – darkmans, the night – dell, a young female tramp, still perhaps a virgin but seen as an embryonic whore – dock, to have sex, especially to deflower – gan, the mouth – instrument, the penis – jere, excremen – lift, to steal – make, a halfpenny – nab-cheat, a hat – nase, drunken – nug, to enjoy sexual foreplay – patrico, a priest or wandering beggar posing as one – peck, to eat – poke, a wallet or purse – poll, to rob by trickery rather than violence –prancer, a horse-thief – ruffler, a villain, of the ‘first rank of canters’ who posed as a discharged soldier though equally likely might have been a former servant – tour, to spy on and win, a penny.


Public execution at Smithfield, 1546

Etching of Robert Copland, possibly early nineteenth century  (Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)

Robert Copland’s printer’s device

Robert Copland’s The Hye Way To The Spyttell House (1529-1534)

Jonathon Green’s history of slang, Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue, will be published by Atlantic Books in April

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The Cockney Alphabet by Jonathon Green

10 Responses leave one →
  1. January 23, 2014

    Ooh fascinating stuff, as good as pictures

  2. January 23, 2014

    What a great post! How have I missed Copland before now? I’ve been tweeting Tudor/Stuart words and phrases of the day for some time, and have heard and used some of those in this article, but haven’t heard others. And I have your books, Mr. Green!

  3. January 23, 2014

    Hello Gentle Author~

    May I ask, not being English myself, if the name of Spitalfields derives from the same root as “Spytell” as in the Spytell House referred to in this post? If not, where does Spitalfields get its name from?

    Many thanks!

  4. January 23, 2014

    Linguistic research — a very interesting area of expertise. Thanks for the research!


  5. January 23, 2014

    Brilliant post – love the descriptions of the villains and frauds. The more things change….

    Also enjoyed the last post. Of course we have a T-shirt for that in the states:

    “Dogs have masters, Cats have staff! ”

    I know! I’m indentured too.

  6. Ros permalink
    January 23, 2014

    Sarah – the word spital is the same as we use in the word hospital. In medieval times such places were run by religious orders and Spitalfields takes its name from the fields surrounding St Mary’s Priory, which was situated just outside the City of London’s boundaries. I hope my facts are correct and that if they’re not the Gentle Author will put us right.

  7. January 25, 2014

    Thank-you kindly, Ros- of course- that makes perfect sense! I love words and languages- just fascinating!

  8. steve permalink
    January 25, 2014

    Hi. Very interesting. In Leicester we have a street called ‘Cank Street’. This is named after the ‘Cank’ well where, during the middle ages, woman would gather to collect water and chat and gossip. The local slang then for gossiping was to ‘Cank’. I wonder now if this could be a corruption of ‘Cant’ or vice versa?

  9. January 26, 2014

    Steve: ‘cank’ was (is?) simply a dialect term for gossip (both noun and verb), and used, according to the English Dialect Dictionary (1907), throughout the Midlands and North-West. Thus the ‘canking- or conking-pleck’ (i.e. place), somewhere that gossips gather. A cheeky child may also be told off by its mother: ‘Don’t you cank at me’. It seems to be onomatopoeic, and most likely developed from another, earlier sense of ‘cank,’ used of geese or ducks, and meaning to cackle, honk or quack.

  10. steve permalink
    January 29, 2014

    Re Cank. Thank you Jonathon. Really good to know the origin.

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